State Department officials worry that the domestic use of U.S. troops increases the perception that the border is militarized, while Chamber of Commerce boosters say the National Guard presence sends the message that the American side of the border is a dangerous place, though it is not. Crime statistics show that the border is one of the safer regions in the country.
Most of the criticism of the deployment focuses on its costs and benefits. The 1,200 National Guard troops have helped Border Patrol agents apprehend 25,514 illegal immigrants at a cost of $160 million — or $6,271 for each person caught.
“As a mayor, I am not going to say we don’t want more security. But as a taxpayer? I would say something different,” said John David Franz, mayor of Hidalgo, in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley.
Proponents of the mission stress that the guardsmen serve as a deterrent to drug smugglers and illegal immigrants — a role that is impossible to measure in dollars.
Under pressure from governors in the southwestern border states, Obama ordered the deployment, dubbed Operation Phalanx, in July 2010 amid a federal showdown in Arizona over a controversial new law targeting illegal immigrants. Members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike — also pushed the president to deploy the Guard, saying they feared that spillover violence from Mexican drug cartels would overwhelm the 2,000-mile frontier.
While citizens might imagine the National Guard patrolling the muddy cane breaks along the Rio Grande in search of drug cartel incursions, many of the troops instead serve as stationary observers, a kind of neighborhood watch with M-16s, often perched 30 feet in the air in skyboxes, portable watchtowers the size of phone booths.
Other troops work the telephones and computers in back offices, as clerks in camouflage.
According to rules of engagement set by the Pentagon, Guard troops are not allowed to pursue, confront or detain suspects, including illegal immigrants, or investigate crimes, make arrests, stop and search vehicles, or seize drugs. Nor do they check Mexico-bound vehicles for bulk cash or smuggled weapons headed to the drug cartels.
“We are the eyes and ears, mainly. We do not have a law enforcement role,” said Maj. Gen. Hugo E. Salazar, head of the Arizona National Guard, who said that his 560 soldiers in Arizona mostly act as an “entry identification team,” watching the border fence.
When the Guard troops spot suspicious activity, they radio Border Patrol agents, who make the apprehensions and drug seizures.